In Darkness, Delight: Masters of Midnight

Review: In Darkness, Delight: Masters of Midnight, eds. Andrew Lennon and Evans Light, 2019.

Cover by Mikio Murakami

I don’t know if it was accidental or deliberate, but the predominant theme of this anthology is grief.

Grief is a peculiar thing, not really horror but painful. But, in some sense, it’s often a sign you were lucky – lucky enough to know something or someone enough to grieve their passing. But, of course, grief can be the start of a more interesting story.

I bought this story for William Meikle’s “Refuge”, one of his Sigil and Totem stories, a series entirely built on grief and loss. Here, Meikle works another variation on that series’ central idea. The narrator is an Arab refuge living in London. He works at a pub where he catches the bad attentions of Wilkins whom he insults. Yes, this is yet another story centered on the modern obsession about racism and discrimination. Meikle conveniently does not make our protagonist a devout Moslem, so he retains our sympathy. There is a bit of invade-the-world, invite-the-world theme here when the narrator replies, to Wilkins’ insult, that he’s in London “Because ignorant fascists just like you blew my family out of their shoes.” The story will take both Wilkins and the protagonist to a Sigils and Totems house where the dead can, in some form, live again. I suppose Meikle is saying we are all bound together by grief, but, frankly, I’m always going to sympathize with the Crusader over the Saracen.

Angel Wings” from Paul Michaels, is another story dealing with grief. The horror is nothing supernatural just loneliness and isolation. Our 11-year old protagonist, Bobby Granger, has lost his mother. His father is distant and contemptuous of the notion, which his wife held, that people have souls. Bobby is a “soft atheist” warring with the need for belief. He comes across what is purported to be angel wings on a school trip to a museum of religious artifacts. He becomes rather obsessed with them with, of course, bad consequences.

Continue reading “In Darkness, Delight: Masters of Midnight”

Halfway to Anywhere — Volume 1

I picked up this slender anthology solely because it had a William Meikle story in it.

Review: Halfway to Anywhere – Volume 1, 2017.

Cover by Zach McCain

William Meikle’s “Stars and Sigils” wrings a couple of variation on his Sigils and Totems formula. First, the sigils and totems “house” in this futuristic story is on a space station. Second, the narrator doesn’t use it an expected way to reconnect with his dead friend Johnny. It’s an unusual entry in Meikle’s series.

J. G. Faherty’s “Heroes Are Made” reminded me of Frederik Pohl’s “What Dreams Remain”. Both feature protagonists who are willing to sell out the future (the future of space exploration in the Pohl story, the future of humanity here) for comfort and safety. Barry goes to his summer cabin with his annoying wife and kids, and they are attacked by aliens which appear as duplicates of the family. The aliens are interested in taking over Earth and are impersonating humans to do it. They need help in perfecting their methods, so they make a proposition to Barry: teach them how to impersonate humans and he can have a better life – albeit under alien guard – than he does now.

Daedalus” from Jeremy Henderson takes too long to get to an obvious conclusion. The whole story is basically the officers of a starship discussing what to do after it’s been learned that their terraforming efforts to make a planet habitable have killed off a large portion of an unknown group of sentient aliens. The officers have to decide whether to turn around and surrender to the UN and be tried for genocide, kill the crew still in suspended animation, or carry on with the expedition and try to help the surviving native sentients.

Continue reading “Halfway to Anywhere — Volume 1”

“The Truth About Pickman”

Originally, I was going to review this story at a much later date since I’m still catching up on reviews. However, after I reading it, I nominated it for discussion at LibraryThing’s Deep Ones group devoted to weird fiction.

I’m not really sure it qualifies despite originally being published in S. T. Joshi’s Black Wings of Cthulhu, but I’ll get to that later.

Review: The Truth about Pickman”, Brian Stableford, 2010.

This is an interesting story, actually a strong piece of science fiction which uses Brian Stableford’s extensive knowledge of biology to rationalize the existence of Richard Pickman from H. P. Lovecraft’s “Pickman’s Model”. It’s ends on something of a nasty joke.

Spoilers aplenty lie ahead.

This story has an underlying tone of menace almost from the beginning since it narrator, Eliot, makes it clear that he’s concealing information from Professor Alastair Thurber who has come to visit him from America.

Eliot lives in a rather odd house on the Isle of Wight in a chine, a wooded ravine at the edge of the sea, a place formerly used by smugglers.

Eliot lives by himself, and Thurber is a microbiologist who also has an interest in Pickman’s paintings. Both men are descendants of characters in Lovecraft’s story. (You probably should read it before this story.)

Continue reading ““The Truth About Pickman””

The Great Siege, Malta 1565

One of my historical interests is the Crusades, but I haven’t done a lot of reading about them lately, and I’ve only posted about an account of Richard III’s Third Crusade. This history, of course, is not about the Crusades, but it does center on one of the peculiar institutions that sprang from them: the warrior-monk of Christendom.

Review: The Great Siege, Malta 1565, Ernle Bradford, 1961.

In the summer of 1565 on the parched ground of Malta, the future of Western Civilization was decided. Would the Moslems continue their expansion into the Mediterranean, preying on European ships and taking Christian slaves as far away as England? Or could they be held back?

It was an epic struggle, an astounding tale of resolve and leadership, of disunity in command and disunity among allies.

Soleyman the First was on the move. Even his European foes grudgingly said he earned the title “The Magnificent”. He had conquered large parts of the Middle East. His movement into Europe was only stopped at the gates of Vienna in 1529. But, at age 70, he was not resting on his laurels. Malta was a strategic thorn in the side of the Ottoman Empire, a base Christians could use to attack his supply and communication lines.

It would not be the first time Soleyman had tangled with the Knights of St. John, the Hospitallers, who used Malta as their base. In 1493, he had driven them off Rhodes. But they had turned Malta with its fine harbors into a base for raiding Moslem shipping.

Continue reading “The Great Siege, Malta 1565”

The Great Scuttle

Knowing I was heading to Scapa Flow and hearing of this book’s release, I pre-ordered a copy from Amazon prior to my trip.

It didn’t come. On first arriving in Kirkwall, I went to the local Orcadian Bookshop. Of course, they had a copy.

Review: The Great Scuttle: The End of the German High Seas Fleet, David Meare, 2019.

Lots of us have went on school field trips. I doubt any of those were as historic as the one the children of Stromness in the Orkney Islands took on June 21, 1919. From the deck of the Flying Kestrel, they saw more ships go to the bottom of the sea at one time than any day before or since.

There are, of course, other histories of that day. I reviewed one recently, Dan van der Vat’s The Grand Scuttle. Meara covers much the same ground as that book. We hear about the surrender of the German High Seas Fleet, its time in Scapa Flow, its scuttling, and the salvage efforts that raised much of it.

What Meara brings, besides the concision of 96 pages and lots of beautiful photographs and paintings, some in color, is the local angle all but ignored before now – what the Orcadians said about that day.

Continue reading “The Great Scuttle”

“The Fungal Strain”

This week’s weird fiction story being discussed over at LibraryThing.

Review: “The Fungal Strain”, W. H. Pugmire, 2006.

Cover by Rafael Tavares

This is an oblique takeoff on H. P. Lovecraft’s “The Thing on the Doorstep” using the “Baudelairean poet Justin Geoffrey” mentioned in passing in that story. 

Pugmire’s prose is lush and filled with vivid incident.

Our narrator is a sometime poet though he claims he’s just interested in the craft of poetry.

The story opens with him seeing, in the fog outside a bookstore, a woman of somewhat bestial face. She comes inside while he looks through a volume of Geoffrey’s works. 

It turns out the woman – whose name we never get — can quote his favorite poet. But the narrator is a loner and somewhat antisocial and isn’t interested in making friends with her. After her opening conversational gambit, she hums an odd song. 

When he leaves the bookstore, the woman follows him, humming a beguiling tune. He begins to “creep” towards her, but she walks into the Kingsport fog.

Continue reading ““The Fungal Strain””

The Other Passenger

Impressed by his story in Scottish Stories of Fantasy and Horror, I picked up this collection by John Keir Cross.

Low Res Scan: The Other Passenger, John Kier Cross, 1944, 2017.

Cover by Henry Petrides

This collection is not entirely horror or weird stories. Many of them deal with people in the arts, particularly music, and they are often written by a narrator claiming to be untutored in the art of writing an account of their experiences. The stories often seemingly digress and move back and forth in time, but Cross always ends his stories by satisfyingly tying everything together.

The collection has a quite deliberate order of stories, and there are links between some of them, so I’ll be looking at them in order. All of these stories first appeared in this volume.

J. F. Norris’ “Introduction” to the Valancourt Books edition is useful. This was not Cross’ first book, but his previous ones were children’s books under the name Stephen MacFarlane – the man “now dead” that Cross dedicated the collection to. Cross was an influential figure. Arthur C. Clarke said Cross was the first professional writer he knew. Ramsey Campbell credits Cross’ Best Horror Stories anthology as shaping his view of the genre. After this book was published, Cross was a scriptwriter for the BBC and adapted many other author’s stories to acclaim.

I’ve already looked at “The Glass Eye”.

Petronella Pan” is a creepy story about a vain woman that, to remain the center of attention, has chemically kept her daughter in the physical (though not mental) state of an infant for 30 years via chemical means. Like many Cross stories, it’s a twice-told story, and the narrator, who doesn’t like babies and goes on a riff about how innocent seeming babies grow up to become grotesque moral or physical monsters, gets the story from his sentimental German-Scottish friend Konrad who has been judging baby contests for thirty years. There is a nice bit with the baby seemingly reading Proust in her baby carriage. The mother’s former husband was a brilliant chemist, and she learned enough of his job to make the necessary formula.  Cross wrings some horror out of Christ’s line “unless you become as children” line by Christ.

Continue reading “The Other Passenger”

The Watcher at the Threshold, Part 5: Amazon and Aegean

Low Res Scan: The Watcher by the Threshold, eds. Christopher Roden and Barbara Roden, 2005, 2012.

My multi-part look at this John Buchan collection concludes.

Buchan took a cruise to the Aegean in 1910 and that’s the setting of “Basilissa”. This 1914 story is my least favorite in the collection. It mixes precognitive dreams with a standard damsel-in-distress romantic plot.

Every April since boyhood Vernon has had a dream where he enters a house with many rooms and senses a danger. On each repetition of the dream, the danger draws closer.

In Greece, Vernon will later rescue a beautiful woman from a local warlord.

Once again, the issue of racial heritage comes up. Vernon, you see, is not of pure English blood. He’s part Greek through his grandmother and that made him susceptible to those dreams and their terrors.

Continue reading “The Watcher at the Threshold, Part 5: Amazon and Aegean”

The Watcher by the Threshold, Part 4: England

Low Res Scan: The Watcher by the Threshold, ed. Christopher Roden and Barbara Roden, 2005, 2012.

My multi-part look at this collection of John Buchan’s fantastic fiction continues with his stories set in England.

Off all the stories in the collection the most memorable and, I think, most original – even though Buchan gave it a Latin title – is ”Tendebant Manus(1927). This is a story with a tinge of predestination at its end and centers around World War One. The story is the reminisces at the funeral of one George Souldern recently killed in a motorcycle accident. For most of his life, George was considered to have a first-class brain, to be industrious and clever but not the sort of man who could lead others, a man of no enthusiasm, a man lacking in personality.

But George, in his later years, starkly transformed. The catalyst seems to have been the death of his brother Reggie on the Western Front. Reggie was everything George wasn’t: a natural leader (he served on staff at General HQ), a man of ordinary intellect who used it all.

Continue reading “The Watcher by the Threshold, Part 4: England”

The Watcher by the Threshold, Part 3: Mountains

Low Res Scan: The Watcher by the Threshold, ed. Christopher Roden and Barbara Roden, 2005, 2012.

My multi-part look at this collection continues with Buchan’s fantastic fiction with a mountaineering connection.

Buchan took up mountain climbing in 1904, and some of his fiction is set in the milieu of climbers, and the stories were often published in specialized magazines. “The Knees of the Gods” (1907) was first published in the Scottish Mountaineering Club Journal. As you would expect from a story written for his fellow climbers, Buchan doesn’t explain much of the terminology or geographies of the listed locations. Oddly, it’s a political satire and science fiction albeit with a vision of the future provided in a dream.

We have another twice-told story with the narrator hearing about the dream of a fellow climber, Smith. We are presented with a view of the future where railroads and electric elevators take people to the tops of several mountains. You can walk up on heated carpets to the summits of others. Scotland’s mountains don’t have railroads to their top, but they’re reserved for “tourists and artists and people out of training”. Serious climbers can still go to the untamed Himalayas.

Alcohol is a prescription only item, and only obese Germans smoke cigars.

Continue reading “The Watcher by the Threshold, Part 3: Mountains”